A Non-Paper on Lear and Tragedy
It would seem that understanding between people can only be accomplished through some act of tragedy, if accomplished at all. We are now living with an act of tragedy that defies understanding, and yet at the same time cries out for understanding. Tragedies are, sadly, nothing new to my generation. We seem to live in an age of violence and hate, where men of good will and good conscience are shot down in our cities' streets as though they were animals. Yet we as a people don't ever seem to learn the lesson. We never seem to do anything about it.
King Lear is an excellent tragedy. Every student of literature should be acquainted with it. I, as an English major, can appreciate it. I can point to the generation gap and say, "See, that was a problem in Shakespeare's time, too." I can point to the disintegration of the family unit within the play and say, "That hasn't changed much either." I can feel the despair that Lear must have felt, old before his time, for he was not yet wise. I can feel the despair because I have grandparents who died without yet being wise, and I never took the time to try to understand them.
Can writing like this, can critical analysis and self-reflection like this only take place in classrooms? No. Of course not. But a great deal of what we do in classrooms can create the conditions where expressions such as these, so short and so powerful, can be spoken or written. Why are we prevented by the use of standardized tests and scantrons and pre-determined book lists from making sustainable spaces where students can interrogate their whiteness and their privilege? Why are we prosecuted by local governments from, even in college, using particular books that acknowledge the full range of humanity and equality our world has to offer? Students can stand fully conscious of their own identities and beliefs. Students can challenge their own histories (the beliefs of their grandparents, for instance). Students can live freely and believe black is good, is right, is beautiful, is honest, is true, is equal. I want to live in a world where college students comprehend the magnitude of tragedy (and triumph) like this young man has and can put it in words that reach out, grab, provoke, and empower others.
For me, this essay also means that language is living and sometimes, the only means we have to move ourselves or others from one day to the next, from one moment to the next, from one generation to the next, and from one struggle to the next. And people who use living language to struggle and to survive and to celebrate this epic moment we are all in together are people who don't live in the past and are people who don't scheme up futures. They are present right now and they use language as an action, as a tool, as a weapon when necessary, to get from one life event to another. Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, and Charleston are in the throws of standing up, shouting out, grieving, and uniting for a free-er society. The words of people caught in this struggle and dedicated to it, push us forward, give us strength, and offer us courage; there is no greater strength on earth than the expressions of forgiveness and faith that have emerged from the victims and the families of the victims, than the expressions of solidarity from around the world.
The rough formula for the creation of texts like the Non-Paper on Lear, in addition to a beautiful, creative, patient mind, seems to be: (a) a critical awareness of social history before the Event (tragedy, celebration, freedom, etc.); (b) access to literatures which explore, challenge, define, or broaden what tragedy, celebration, freedom are; (c) peers who have access to, though likely different ideas about, the same literatures as well as literatures they have read on their own as well as access to the current social climate; (d) the ability to connect reality and now with literature at the moment of tragedy so (e) we can discover the outcome, whatever it is in the literature, and (i) choose a similar path if it led to a resolution or (ii) know which path not to choose if it led to further destruction. We then (iii) imagine new paths to resolution or critique the paths chosen in literature, critique the paths chosen in our social project and put forward new ideas about how, with our own energies and resources, we can rewrite/reright the wrong or gather strength and wisdom from the positive accomplishments of others. Significantly, the magnitude of a single event does not have to match that of the MLK, Jr. assassination. There are social events and histories that are going on around us that need the fresh look and bright eyes of young people to help older adults grow wise before they grow too old. Greenwald's sentence, that one sentence, born out of the dual context of reading Lear and then confronting this immeasurable tragedy, felt around the world, changed for me the entire way I look at and position myself when I return to Lear and when I return to MLK's life, legacy, and death and how I now see the horrific events that have taken place in Charleston, Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, McKinney, and beyond.
In that regard, I have a very serious affinity for addressing the epidemic of growing old before we grow wise in this country. The Politics of Time, which can be contextualized in that resounding line, "old before his time because he was not yet wise", are worth our consideration because truly, we don't have the time to squander on issues that don't connect, that don't make contact, and that don't provoke action. The 2008 election saw the largest number of youth voters since the 1972 presidential election. Much of the youth population's participation in the 2008 election has been attributed to the Obama campaign's strategies to use unmatched online activism and to use social networking sites to galvanize the youth base. And it worked, with overwhelming results. The campaign made significant gains by publically legitimizing the stories of all Americans, including Americans who were unemployed, part of the working class, middle class, and upper class; Americans from all racial, ethnic, and religious groups; Americans who were veterans and the families of veterans; Americans who were college students; Americans who were fighting courageously for the rights of LGBT relationships and families and for fair immigration reform; and Americans who were in retirement and yet still hoped to change America. Obama went for the heartland, for the DNA of the country, and he ignored no one and no story. This was a turning point for youth involvement in civic engagement and discourse. The impact stories had on the pivotal moment in American history cannot be ignored.
Despite the large number of youth voters who had grown wise before they grew old by participating in and shaping civic discourses online and in person during the 2008 election cycle, many of those youth were not youth of color, drawing our attention back to the access gap which we must address and close. There are plenty of obstacles which have impeded youth voters of color from getting their votes counted, and the obstacles put in place by GOP politicians continue to rise at an alarming rate. Be skeptical of any GOP candidates making statements of solidarity or heartache. They are upholding a system of racial discrimination, and working HARD to do it.
"Youth voters" are identified as those who are 18-24 years old. We have a 7 year timetable, 1.75 elections, to reach out to young people and affirm that they have a stake in our social enterprise and that they have something worthy and significant to contribute...right now. Some 18 year olds are still in high school and other 18 year olds are establishing jobs for themselves in evolving tech industries while still other 18 year olds are lost/in these streets loose. because there are major, unrelenting systems of institutional racism operating at every level of society. So when you think about the willpower it takes to vote and to be involved in the formal aspects of a democracy, and then juxtapose that with the realities children of color face coming up or growing up in school settings (see David Kirkland's interrogation of ELA Standards and the impact school has on black male youth), we may see the urgency in reaching out now -- in schools and in schools of education -- to youth of color with our words, with our books we assign, with the histories recognize, with the self-reflection and self-criticism we encourage if we want to see that access gap closed, if we want to see more diverse populations making up the youth voter stats in the next election.
I say all of this because there is perhaps a hesitancy for scholars and people in the academy to do too much of this before reading every possible thing ever written about youth of color, histories of diverse populations, and systems of inequality which have long-replicated and maintained thriving social and economic stratification in this country. The problem is, we can spend the good part of our academic careers reading and writing and those endeavors are worthy, too. But they are private actions, and if they are not paired with public expressions of outrage and solidarity, then we leave those behind whom many of us came to the academy to liberate, including ourselves; we will leave behind systems that we never broke down or broke away from; we will say outloud to our students and to the next generation that we gave it all we got, but it wasn't enough. Forget it. I want to hear your truths and I want the world to know your names.